Douglas & Company is a local design collective owned and run by husband and wife duo Jan and Liani Douglas. With backgrounds in architecture, Douglas & Company was established as a side project which allowed them to design small scale interior items too. Now, 3 years later, Douglas & Company has an extensive portfolio, ranging from residential projects to interior products and jewellery pieces. We caught up with them to find out more about their minimalistic approach and architectural aesthetic.
Tell us about your backgrounds?
We see ourselves as makers of things, and specialise in the design and production of contemporary spaces, furniture, lighting and objects.
We both studied architecture, and have been fortunate to hone our skills and gain experience in the design world both locally (Cape Town) and abroad (London). We’ve always been interested and involved in the broader creative industry. Jan interned and did illustrative commissions for Wallpaper* magazine shortly after graduating, and Liani submerged herself as a curator in the contemporary art world for the last couple of years.
Until recently, Douglas & Company was a sideline to our ‘real’ day jobs and directed as and when opportunities arose. Jan’s first furniture range titled Africana Familia made its debut at the Design Indaba Expo in 2012 as part of the Emerging Creatives Programme, and a collaboration with Mr Price for a locally designed homeware range as part of their CoLab collection followed soon after.
The end of 2014 marked the beginning of a bigger commitment to our joined creative endeavours, so we’re looking forward to a productive 2015.
Did the transition from working as architects to designing interior items and products come naturally?
In the very first book entirely devoted to architecture, the Roman architect and writer Vitruvius said that Roman architects practised a wide variety of disciplines, and called for architects to be “skilful in many arts, equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning”.
We’re interested in designing ‘complete’ environments, so it feels like a natural extension to be concerned with the smaller scale items that we interact with on a daily basis. We believe that good design requires the ability to work in multiple scales, and the transition between proportions is complimentary to the process and refinement of items. Many of the nowadays sought after modern classic furniture, were conceived by architects – think about the Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer, Chaise Longue by Le Corbusier and the well known Eames chairs by Charles and Ray Eames.
Working at a smaller scale also gives us the chance to experiment with a wider materials palette. One rarely gets the opportunity to ‘prototype’ large structures, so it’s an added benefit to test ideas in smaller pieces, and then be able to incorporate these tailor-made products as part of architectural projects.
How does your experience in architecture influence your approach and aesthetic when designing furniture or products?
Our approach to creating places and spaces is based on a contextual response. South Africa has a rich heritage to explore: in terms of how we use spaces, materials and climate, and how we address these factors to make work that are responsive and useful within a very specific context.
We’re in favour of simplicity in architecture and design, and try to abide by Dieter Rams’s 10 Principles of Good Design, in particular ‘good design is as little design as possible’. A fitting example is Die Steunpilaar, the newest addition to our family of furniture. The design of this leaning lamp reduces all the traditional components of a floor lamp to a minimum and eliminates the idea of a self supporting structure in favour of using its context as a structural mechanism. The lamp leans against walls or a vertical surface and the shade is adjustable.
We’re interested in architecture and design being the backdrop to the everyday, so we’re always trying to use design to find a place located half-way between idealism and pragmatism. Buildings and products are used daily, so their aesthetic quality and ‘image’ is integral to its usefulness and memory.
Are there any other influences on your designs?
We have a lot of fun in naming our products and like the idea that the pieces might all be characters in some strange narrative, with authentic South African names based on our heritage.
Jan’s interest in pulp and photo stories inspired naming the recent Die Swart Hings. This standing lamp is a direct descendant of Die Kantelmeester, but has more attitude. A bit like Die Swart Luiperd, a series of local pulp novels from the 1950s.
Many of our products look like strange creatures or characters with adjustable ‘heads’ and ‘legs’ that add to their anthropomorphic qualities. Pieces in the first collection referenced various archetypal forms of addressing Afrikaans boy or men, like Kantelknaap, Kantelmeester, Die Oom and Boetman. The next collection could have been a family saga in the grand South African tradition featuring Ðie Dienskneg (side table), Opsitkers (table lamp), Stiefma (bench) Swartskaap (floor lamp) and Versamelaar (bookshelf).
Tell us about your creative process. How do you go about turning an idea into a physical object?
We both enjoy the creative and design process, and conceive of the majority of products and projects together; but with Jan working full-time, Liani looks after the administration and production. Our creative process is definitely not a linear one. Ideas get reworked and refined through every stage of the process to get the best results. The starting point will either be a request for a bespoke item or space from a client or self initiated, generally through a need to have a functional item in our home. Sketch designs are materialised in prototypes, where after it is sent for production once we’re happy with the final dimensions, materials and finish. All items are produced on South African soil in support of local craftsmanship.
What inspired your latest project, FORM MATTERS?
FORM MATTERS is a self initiated project that explores how concrete, the same material that is used to create large architectural structures around the world, can also be used to create smaller wearable pieces. We’re interested in how jewellery items double up as wearable pieces of architecture or even maquettes for a larger installation, so Liani designed this once-off collection as an experiment.
The simple geometric forms remind of pre-cast concrete components used in infrastructure construction (concrete pipes and culverts), but this reference is challenged by the elements downscaled to a human proportion. A mix of Portland cement, sand and water was used to shape the bracelets, with the section thickness reduced to the structural minimum. Hand cut brushed brass plates complete the geometric forms with a single black diamond set in one of the bracelets to add extra sparkle and delight, similar to a hidden gem. Future plans include variations in different materials – keeping with a material palette used in the construction industry like marble and wood. The concrete is gorgeous, but brittle, so a more durable version would be first prize.
With a full-time job as an architect, teaching architecture and running Douglas & Co, how do you stay inspired and motivated?
We enjoy walking, cycling and getting lost in foreign (and local) cities whenever we can, and then sitting down and sampling the local brew. Liani enjoys to document a city’s moments rather than its’ monuments on Instagram. Her quest to find delight in the ordinary started as a personal project, Calendar of the Everyday, where she captured everyday experiences of city life in Cape Town, day by day, during the city’s reign as World Design Capital in 2014.
We stay curious to stay inspired, and try to look at our surroundings with awe. We both read novels (JM Coetzee, Paul Auster, Eben Venter, Etienne le Roux and Don de Lillo are some favourites), and believe that these narratives provide a useful insight into contemporary life. And to keep our feet tapping, we listen to BBC 6 Music. We also enjoy doing nothing, and celebrate it with a good bottle of wine.
What are you working on at the moment?
There’s a new residential and interior project currently on the drawing board, and we’re planning to launch a new collection of products and exhibit at a design trade show towards the end of 2015.
(In no particular order)
Visit Hong Kong, Istanbul, Tokyo and Lisbon
A Calendar of the Everyday exhibition
Renovate our own home
Build a custom bike
Launch a wearable architecture jewellery range